Dining with Don and Friends: Woody’s in Sea Bright

November 11, 2011
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by Don Wilno
Restaurant Writer



A new restaurant will always lure patrons wanting to try something new. Sometimes they’ll win you over; other times you’ll be disappointed and never seen again. It’s a fact of life in the restaurant business.
When you open a new restaurant, you have to be ready. Second-time customers are what you seek. They are the backbone of success.

My dear friend, High Maintenance, and Ms. A — a new friend after just one meeting — dined at the new and fashionably designed Woody’s Ocean Grille, 1 East Church Street, Sea Bright. Woody’s opened in late summer in the building that housed the popular drinking and eating establishment, Ichabod’s, for decades.
Managing partner Christopher J. Wood has an award-winning restaurant worthy of making a visit sooner rather than later. He has assembled a staff of first-class restaurant veterans.
Ed O’Keefe runs the kitchen after a stint at The Shack in town. Assisting Wood is Scott Hart, the former general manager of the highly successful Salt Creek Grille on the Navesink River in Rumson.
I was impressed with what I saw the moment I arrived at Woody’s. High Maintenance will tell you I’m not easily impressed. I’m more demanding than she is, and she is very, very, very demanding, as her name implies.
Sorry, High Maintenance, I have to tell the truth. You are indeed very, very, very hard to please.

Woody’s is my kind of place. It’s not too gaudy, not too snooty, and not too upscale. It’s a great place to meet and greet and enjoy a wide selection of great food. It’s clean and comfortable, always a plus for me.
Like I said, I was impressed, and the lovely women I dined with were equally impressed.
I loved their conversation, although I barely got a word in at the start. You know how women can be. Sitting with them reminded me of Beauty and the Beast. Not even Ms. A’s salon could help me.
I sat back and enjoyed their banter. These two are friends forever. I felt I was just along for the ride, which I didn’t mind at all.
Typically, High Maintenance is predictable.  She eats so little and her style hasn’t changed in all the years I have known her. No appetizer, a salad, and no dessert. And half the salad always goes home with her.
I wasn’t surprised that she ordered the Laguna Salad ($14). But she did surprise me when she added grilled chicken after her request for shrimp was rejected as not the right way to go. Stick with the grilled chicken, she was told. Still, she likes to create her own dish. She’s fussy, as you must have imagined.
Ms. A – who I asked about styling my hideous haircut – sought out the Outer Banks ($14), blackened mahi-mahi on a bed of chopped Romaine.

Our server, Claudia Francello. Photo by Don Wilno

The menu has so many first-class items I couldn’t decide what to order. I pondered the entrees, lost in a variety of dishes I thought would be tasty. I asked our waitress, Claudia Francello of Leonardo, for a recommendation.
Claudia suggested the sweet potato Encrusted Grouper with Mango Salsa ($27).
It sounded so good, so tempting, that I went with her choice.
While waiting for our dishes, the three of us gossiped at length. It was fun, of course, talking about people not there to defend themselves, especially one person in particular who shall remain nameless. I have banned that person from dining with me for life. Life, as in forever.
I had to explain to Ms. A. why she’s never ever going to dine with me. She understood, fully. I also had to explain to Ms. A my calling in life now that I occupy this space in this wonderful weekly.
Whatever she told me about her calling in life passed right by me. I’ve never been in any salon, and certainly don’t need any special styling. I am who I am, take it or leave it. She’d be wasting her time trying to make me look pretty. Pretty? How about handsome?
We laughed at the stories we told, chit-chatting about everything and everyone. I think we covered just about everyone we knew. Ha. Ha. Ha.
When our dishes were served, I loved the classy presentation. The dishes were quite nice.  I knew then that Woody’s would turn out to be an excellent dining venue right from the get-go.
My grouper looked fabulous, a healthy order for someone like me who is eating healthy after an extended stay in the Ocean Medical Center at Brick. I’m eating healthy, so healthy I have lost 61 pounds.  Where are all those cougars now?

Sweet Potato Encrusted Grouper with Mango Salsa at Woody's. Photo by Don Wilno

High Maintenance got the salad the way she ordered it.
Ms. A raved about her dish, calling it the best she has ever had. That’s high praise, bless her heart. I’m the critic, thank you. I don’t tell you how to style anyone’s hair. Maybe I should dye my hair blonde – that would be a shocker.
I was thrilled with potato encrusted grouper.  The mango salsa was perfect for the fish, adding just a little tang to the dish.
High Maintenance asked me if I was hungry, because I spent little time talking and more time eating. It was so good.
I stuck my head in the kitchen, which I must say was spotless, another good sign of a great restaurant. I asked which chef cooked the grouper. I met that chef who prepared my dinner, thanking him for its perfection. Another chef, perhaps Ed O’Keefe, the boss of the kitchen, told me that all the fish is brought in fresh daily, purchased from the Lusty Lobster in Highlands, a very popular seafood outlet.
I told the chef how good the grouper tasted.  I just had to tell the chefs how good everything was, and how much everyone liked their dishes. He was pleased with the unsolicited compliment.
I told him I’ll be in Florida shortly and would be dining at my favorite seafood restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens, Spoto’s Oyster Bar, where the grouper is great, too. It’s on the menu as pretzel encrusted grouper. Yummy.
When I returned to the table (the bar was jammed when we arrived), my dining companions were still gossiping non-stop. I hadn’t missed a thing. Some of the same names were still being discussed. I laughed, of course.
High Maintenance, who has known me for years and knows my likes and dislikes, asked me if I enjoyed my dish.
Of course, I did. I never sugar-coat it. I am a straight-shooter.
I told her I would move Woody’s into my Top 10 restaurants of all-time. I’ve been doing this now 18 years, 16 with the Asbury Park Press where my Watering Hole column was a reader favorite, so Woody’s has to be very special.
We three enjoyed it so much that we have already decided we are going to visit again, closer to the Christmas, to celebrate the holidays.
Come join us.
We’re really good people.
Well, at least I am.

The Many Arts Of Atlantic Highlands
Woody’s Ocean Grille
1 East Church St., Sea Bright
(732) 936-1300

Who’s Dining With Don?

Do you know the identity of Ms. A, Don Wilno’s dining partner at Woody’s?
The first person who sends us the full name of Mrs. A will win a one-year subscription to the Two River Times, and $10 Red Bank RiverCenter shopping card and a TRT totebag.
Send your response to editor@tworivertimes.com, post your answer on the TRT FaceBook wall, or post it in the comments section of the story on www.tworivertimes.com.

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